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Get Your Kicks on Route 66

It was the Mother Road, the Main Street of America, and for thousands of Midwesterners devastated by the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, the road to a better life. On the last leg of its journey from Chicago to California, Route 66 meandered across the vast empty landscape of northern Arizona, and today, much of this road is still visible.

Officially dedicated in 1926, Route 66 was the first highway in America to be uniformly signed from one state to the next. Less than half of the highway's 2,200-mile route was paved, and in those days, the stretch between Winslow and Ash Fork was so muddy in winter that drivers had their cars shipped by railroad between the two points. By the 1930s, however, the entire length of Route 66 had been paved, and the westward migration was underway.

The years following World War II saw Americans take to Route 66 in unprecedented numbers for a different reason. A new prosperity and reliable cars made travel a pleasure, and Americans set out to discover the West. Motor courts, cafes, and tourist traps sprang up along the highway's length, and these businesses increasingly turned to eye-catching signs and billboards to lure passing motorists. Neon lit up the once-lonely stretches of highway.

By the 1950s, Route 66 just couldn't handle the traffic. After President Eisenhower initiated the National Interstate Highway System, Route 66 was slowly replaced by a four-lane divided highway. Many of the towns along the old highway were bypassed, and motorists stopped frequenting such roadside establishments as Pope's General Store and the Oatman Hotel. Many closed, while others were replaced by their more modern equivalents. Some, however, managed to survive, and they appear along the road like strange time capsules from another era, vestiges of Route 66's legendary past.

The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook is one of the most distinctive Route 66 landmarks. The wigwams (actually tepees) were built out of concrete around 1940 and still contain many of their original furnishings. Also in Holbrook are several rock shops with giant signs -- and life-size concrete dinosaurs -- that date from Route 66 days.

Flagstaff, the largest town along the Arizona stretch of Route 66, became a major layover spot. Motor courts flourished on the road leading into town from the east. Today, this road has been officially renamed Route 66 by the city of Flagstaff, and a few of the old motor courts remain. Although you probably wouldn't want to stay in most of these old motels, their neon signs were once beacons in the night for tired drivers. Downtown Flagstaff has quite a few shops where you can pick up Route 66 memorabilia.

About 65 miles west of Flagstaff begins the longest remaining stretch of old Route 66. Extending for 160 miles from Ash Fork to Topock, this lonely blacktop passes through some of the most remote country in Arizona (and goes right through the town of Kingman). In Seligman, at the east end of this stretch of the highway, you'll find Delgadillo's Snow Cap, 301 E. Rte. 66 (tel. 928/422-3291), which serves up fast food amid outrageous decor (closed in winter). Next door at Angel & Vilma Delgadillo's Route 66 Gift Shop & Visitor's Center, 217 E. Rte. 66 (tel. 928/422-3352; www.route66giftshop.com), you'll be entertained by the owner, Angel, one of Route 66's most famous residents and an avid fan of the old highway. The walls of Angel's old one-chair barbershop are covered with photos and business cards of happy customers. Today, Angel's place is a Route 66 information center and souvenir shop.

After leaving Seligman, the highway passes through such waysides as Peach Springs, Truxton, Valentine, and Hackberry. Before reaching Peach Springs, you'll come to Grand Canyon Caverns, once a near-mandatory stop for families traveling Route 66. In Hackberry, be sure to stop at the Hackberry General Store & Visitor's Center, 11255 E. Ariz. 66 (tel. 928/769-2605; www.hackberrygeneralstore.com), which is filled with Route 66 memorabilia as well as old stuff from the 1950s and 1960s. At Valle Vista, near Kingman, the highway goes into a 7-mile-long curve. Some claim it's the longest continuous curve on a U.S. highway.

After the drive through the wilderness west of Seligman, Kingman feels like a veritable metropolis; its bold neon signs once brought a sigh of relief to the tired and the hungry. Today, it boasts dozens of modern motels and is still primarily a resting spot for the road-weary. Mr. D'z Route 66 Diner, a modern rendition of a 1950s diner (housed in an old gas station/cafe), serves burgers and blue-plate specials. Across the street at 120 W. Rte. 66. is a restored powerhouse that dates from 1907 and is home to the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona (tel. 928/753-5001; www.azrt66.com), the Historic Route 66 Museum , and the Powerhouse Visitor Center. Each year over the first weekend in May, Kingman hosts the Historic Route 66 Fun Run, a drive along 150 miles of old Route 66 between Topock and Seligman.

The last stretch of Route 66 in Arizona heads southwest out of Kingman through the rugged Sacramento Mountains. It passes through Oatman, which almost became a ghost town after the local gold-mining industry shut down and the new interstate highway pulled money out of town. Today, mock gunfights and nosy wild burros entice motorists to stop, and shops playing up Route 66's heritage line the wooden sidewalks.

After dropping down out of the mountains, the road once crossed the Colorado River on a narrow metal bridge. Although the bridge is still there, it now carries a pipeline instead of traffic; cars must now return to the bland I-40 to continue their journey into the promised land of California.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.